Thursday, June 24, 2010
In Korea, temple food has been attracting a lot of attention as a kind of food that delivers both great taste and health benefits. As the tastes of many people worldwide shift towards an emphasis on the value of slowness, more people are seeking out Slow Food and Temple Food is emerging as one type of Slow Food in Korea. Temple food is vegetarian in that it is made without any meat or seafood, but the concept of temple food is somewhat different. Because seasonal ingredients from each province in Korea are used and the flavours are not overly strong, temple food is more than just food; it can play a role in moderating your health, both physical and mental. Eating this kind of food is one of the precepts of Buddhist monks, so one can passively experience the life of a monk by eating this food, which is truly healthy in many ways.
On the afternoon of the 24th of May, Chef Lee You-seok, an expert at French cuisine, met with Dae-ahn Seunim, a monk who specializes in temple food, at a temple restaurant called Balugongyang in the Jogyesa Temple Stay in Insadong, Seoul.
Dae-ahn Seunim, the General Manager and food specialist at Bal-u-gong yang, has been working to popularize temple food for a long time, and Chef Lee You-seok will soon bring his youthful passion to his new position as a chef-owner. The most significant points to emerge from their discussion were that temple food transcends religion, and since temple food is so healthy, it represents one possible avenue for the globalization of Korean food.
Both of them agreed that it won’t be long before temple food really catches on in Korea as a healthy kind of food as more and more people have the opportunity to try it.
(Chef Lee You-seok posed questions, and Dae-ahn Seunim responded.)
Q: Temple food has gained popularity as more people develop tastes for healthier kinds of food. What do you think are the strengths of temple food?
A: Temple food is a perfect meal, full of nature’s goodness. The dishes, which are high in protein and low in calories, are prepared according to the Five Elements Theory and include a balance of Yin and Yang aspects, so they are very good for your health. Another plus is that almost no MSG is added, so you can taste the wholesomeness of the ingredients.
Q: Could you explain why Oh-sin-chae, five ingredients with strong flavours (green onion, garlic, wild chives, leeks, and asafoetida), are avoided in the preparation of temple food?
A: Oh-sin-chae have an energizing effect on the human body, and this stimulation makes people very excited. In Buddhist practice, this sort of excitement adversely influences one’s training in a significant way, so this is why these ingredients are avoided in temple food.
Q: But wouldn’t that make the food taste quite bland?
A: We don’t want to make food that is flavourless, so we try hard to include all Six Flavours (salty, sour, sweet, bitter, spicy, and astringent). In order to achieve a good harmony, a meal must present a well-balanced variety of flavours, and the order in which the dishes are presented is carefully considered. At least, I think temple food should control your mood, not depend on it.
Q: At Bal-u-gong yang, where you work as General Manager, temple food is served at quite reasonable prices, not only to Buddhists, but also the general public. Would you explain what this Buddhist term ‘Balugongyang’ means?
A: ‘Balugongyang’ means people gathering together and eating a proper amount of food served in one bowl. The word ‘bal-woo’ means a bowl.
Q: Would you briefly tell us how ‘Balugongyang’ became what it is today?
A: At first, we opened the restaurant with the intention of giving more people a direct experience of ‘bal-woo-gong-yang’. So customers were supposed to take only what they could eat, and after eating, wash the bowl out and drink the water, as is done in temples, but many found it objectionable. Now we present full-course set menus, such as ‘Sibbaramil (Ten Paramitas)’, ‘Sibibeopryunji (Twelve Turns of the Dharma Wheel)’, and ‘Sibokkaedareum (Fifteen Insights)’, so that people can, as much as possible, feel that they are actually doing practice while eating.
Q: For a long time, temple food was only known to Buddhists, not the general public, so foreigners, in particular, were not even willing to try it. But now, I know that a lot of foreigners are visiting the restaurant. So, what is their reaction like?
A: Most of the food that foreign visitors to Korea try is either mixed or fried. But with temple food, the main ingredients are distinct and easily recognizable. What attracts a lot of foreign visitors to temple food is its clean taste, mild flavours, wholesomeness, and neat, simple presentation. We often notice how amazed they are that the food is made with ingredients that are gathered from the mountains.
Q: I guess some of your foreign guests might find the flavour and the presentation of the food rather plain. What do you think about adding some new items that combine elements of Eastern and Western cuisine to the menu in order to better suit their tastes?
A: I think we can develop the cuisine while still maintaining our own unique tradition. Food reflects the state of mind of the person who prepares it. For example, we can use the flowers and fruits we already have to enhance the presentation of the food.
Q: In that case, how do you think the globalization of Korean food, including temple food, can best be promoted?
A: When cooking Korean food, we shouldn’t use Japanese soy sauce. As a starting point, we ought to use our traditional Korean ingredients, like our own fermented soy sauce, to appeal to the tastes of foreign customers. Rather than adapting something that is not genuine, we need to establish Korean cuisine on a firm foundation, and based on that, we can make changes to adapt it to the tastes of people from other countries. I think that temple food has a promising future because some people have expressed interest in opening branches of Balugongyang in America, England, and Denmark, so they must think there’s a lot of potential for temple food to be successful in those markets.
Clearly, Daeahn Seunim is very proud of the fact that, as temple food gains popularity, more people throughout the world are going to be exposed to the Korean culinary tradition. Given the abundance of the times we live in, the notions many people have about temple – namely, that it is rustic and simple – can be transformed so that they come to think of it as a luxurious cuisine that is full of variety. The Chogye Order of Korean Buddhism is planning to open another location of the restaurant, so that young people and foreign visitors who are used to stimulating, strong-flavored food, such as fast food, can comfortably enjoy temple food at reasonable prices. Take a break from your busy routine to experience perfectly healthy temple food and train your mind through this sort of practice.
Interviewed and written by Chef Lee You-seok